SINGAPORE: Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Tuesday (Feb 18) expressed confidence in Singapore’s ability to overcome the COVID-19 outbreak and “emerge stronger as a nation”.
Rsponding to questions from Members of Parliament (MPs), Mr Gan said in Parliament that Singapore will continue to monitor the situation and prepare for different scenarios.
“Together, with everyone playing our part and staying united, we are confident that we will overcome this outbreak and emerge stronger as a nation,” he said.
Singapore has reported 77 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Monday. Of these, 53 are still in hospital, including four who are in the intensive care unit.
The COVID-19 virus has infected more than 72,000 people and killed nearly 1,900, mostly in mainland China, where it is believed to have originated.
More than 20 of the cases in Singapore were imported. Many are Chinese nationals who entered Singapore on or before Jan 23, the date China authorities imposed a lockdown on Wuhan to prevent the spread of the virus.
At least six of the imported cases are Singaporeans who were evacuated from Wuhan on Scoot flights on Jan 30 and Feb 9. They include a two-year-old girl who was diagnosed with the virus on Feb 10 and a one-year-old boy confirmed on Feb 16.
Several local clusters have also been identified.
“Contact tracing has helped us identify five local clusters and investigations on these clusters are ongoing. Contact tracing is also underway for the remaining seven locally transmitted cases to establish any links to previous cases or travel history to mainland China,” Mr Gan said.
MP Lim Biow Chuan asked what other measures Singaporeans can take to protect themselves from being infected by the coronavirus.
Mr Gan cited the precautionary measures Singapore has put in place since January, including travel restrictions, contact tracing and placing identified close contacts under quarantine.
“Today, we activated the Public Health Preparedness Clinics (PHPCs) to strengthen our defences at the primary care front to better detect and manage COVID-19 cases,” he said, adding that the clinics will provide subsidised care for patients with respiratory illness.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) has instructed doctors to provide medical certificates of five days to patients who present respiratory symptoms so that they can stay at home while they recover.
This follows observations that several local confirmed cases had mingled in public or gone to work, even when they were ill.
“We urge individuals with respiratory symptoms (such as fever, cough, sore throat and runny nose) to seek medical treatment at the PHPCs or polyclinics early, and stay home throughout their MC period,” he said.
INSIGHTS INTO VIRUS
Mr Gan also responded to MP Rahayu Mahzam, who asked if there are new insights on how the virus is spread.
“Knowledge of COVID-19 is still evolving as scientists around the world work to better understand the virus,” said Mr Gan.
“MOH studies the latest reports, consults international infectious diseases experts and keeps in touch with other health authorities to gain greater knowledge of the virus and how it is transmitted.
“The current medical assessment still points to COVID-19 spreading mainly through droplets and physical contact from an infected person. Based on evidence available in China, an expert from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has said that there is currently no evidence that the virus can be transmitted through aerosol.”
Mr Gan also reiterated the importance of each person helping to curb the spread of disease by being socially responsible and practising good personal hygiene.
“Each person should also monitor his or her health closely, take temperature twice daily, see a doctor when unwell and stay home to rest, and if they must go out, for example to see a doctor, wear a mask,” he said.
AVAILABILITY OF TEST KITS; CURBING MISINFORMATION
In a supplementary question, MP Yee Chia Hsing asked whether polyclinics and general practitioner (GP) clinics could be supplied with test kits as several cases had to make multiple visits to clinics before they tested positive with COVID-19.
Mr Gan responded that it would not be possible to test every flu or cold patient, as there are about 30,000 people with flu-like symptoms every day, while only about five to 10 COVID-19 cases are found each day.
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"On top of that you may have a lot of false positives that you have to chase around and therefore the best way for us is for the doctors to make a (clinical) judgment", he said.
Primary care doctors may not have the know-how to test for COVID-19, and they could end up exposed to potential infections, he added.
The reason why MOH has recommended that doctors issue five-day MCs is because people with a common cough or cold are likely to recover within the five days.
He also encouraged those who do not recover after the five days to see the same doctor again, instead of hopping from clinic to clinic, to facilitate the tracking of the patient's history.
He also noted that some private hospitals are planning to help manage the patient workload by testing some of the cases.
MP Cheryl Chan asked whether the authorities will take action against those that intentionally spread misinformation about the virus.
Mr Gan acknowledged that it is difficult to curb false information as many of those are circulated on closed chat groups.
Singaporeans should wait for official information to be relayed instead, Mr Gan said, pointing out that the authorities have been holding regular press briefings.
Mr Gan also reminded Singaporeans to "live life as normal as possible" while taking the necessary precautions, in response to Nominated Member of Parliament Mohamed Irshad's question on how long the outbreak will last.
Given COVID-19's transmission rate, Singaporeans have to expect to live with it for "quite a long time", he said.
He compared the virus to H1N1, which infected more than 400,000 people in the country, he said.
"I think this is also an opportunity for us to reinforce these socially responsible practices," he said. "It doesn't mean that the once COVID-19 is over - if it's ever over- we stop washing hands."